Operation sovereign football: refugees and soccer

If the maturity of a nation can be judged by the level of its public discourse, frequently Australia appears marooned in its early teenage years. The dialogue around refugees is only the worst example. ‘Stop the boats’ is a catchphrase designed to stifle rational debate, while the broad acceptance of ‘illegals’ as a label for desperate people fleeing repression defines us nationally even as it embarrasses us internationally.

The prevalence of such dismal political and media language reflects the general apathy toward the plight of asylum seekers that is consistently reflected in opinion polls. If only marginal voices are calling for change, then the call for change is doomed to remain marginal.

A lifetime of playing and following football (soccer) has heightened my empathy for refugees because soccer followers know all about being marginalised. It feels sometimes as if Australia is united in the belief that two foreign scourges represent the most danger to its supposedly unified culture: illegal immigrants and soccer.

The twentieth edition of the World Cup, the pinnacle of football, has recently concluded. Australia first qualified for this quadrennial event in 1973, coincidentally the year the White Australia Policy officially died. Our involvement since 2006 in three consecutive finals tournaments has raised interest amongst some – but hackles in others.

Even for devotees, the month-long World Cup can be an endurance test. Often the football itself eventually tests the patience (though not this time, for the quality was largely excellent). The politics around the sport also conspire to try one’s resolve – World Cups come and go but the governing body FIFA stays as dastardly and dictatorial as ever. The most fortitude, however, is required when, right on on cue every four years, voices emerge from the fourth estate to condemn soccer as antithetical to our ‘way of life’.

Though there are numerous repeat offenders, 2014 saw a new crop both here and in the US (soccer being considered as un-American as it is un-Australian). This time the outraged included, the US, the right-wing grotesque Ann Coulter, who finds increasing interest in soccer to be symptomatic of her nation’s ‘moral decay,’ and, in this country, Crikey political editor Bernard Keane and the Sydney Morning Herald’s Paul Sheehan.

The gripes of Keane and Sheehan were dispiritingly banal, essentially coming down to the claim that soccer is bad because it is not Australian rules or rugby league. Keane got all irritated because soccer players cannot pick up the ball in their hands. Both he and Sheehan bemoaned the lack of scoring during a World Cup that featured more goals than any other in recent memory. Sheehan made a particular mess of this argument by using Brazil’s unprecedented seven goal semi-final capitulation to Germany as evidence of what all soccer games need: more goals.

Evaluating a soccer match on the basis of the number of goals scored is about as crude as identifying all asylum seekers as potential terrorists. While the Germany-Brazil game will probably be the most remembered clash from this World Cup it wasn’t anywhere near the best: as a contest it was all over after twenty-five minutes. The absorbing early match-up between Portugal and the USA in the Arena Amazônia, Manaus, far better captured the game’s knife-edge appeal. Here, much-fancied Portugal desperately needed to win, yet with only seconds remaining the (for once) American underdogs deservedly led by two goals to one. Then, nonchalant Portuguese superstar Ronaldo, who achieved precisely fuck-all in the other 269 minutes he played in the competition, pooped the premature American party by bending in an unbearably precise 50-yard cross which the hitherto unknown striker Silvestre Varela headed spectacularly into the net. Moments later it was over; nobody had won, everyone felt dejected. It was just like real life.

But, as in real life, everyone soon moved on. The next day there would be another game, a different story to tell. (Even Ronaldo, who was later exposed as donating some of his grossly excessive salary to a boy dying of cancer, could be forgiven.)

American novelist Robert Coover describes soccer as ‘an open-ended morality play’; the Nigerian author Teju Cole notes how ‘arbitrariness plays a glorious and infuriating role.’ Both observations elegantly capture the complexity of a sport that unwittingly challenges presumed core Australian ideals by being culturally hybrid, by confusing masculine and feminine traits, and by being at heart unpredictable and at times unjust.

Another aspect of our imagined universal temperament that soccer allegedly disrupts revolves around notions of stoicism and resilience, features which in essence define the other football codes. Yet that is merely more overloaded rhetoric. Real stoicism is children in Angola or Afghanistan going out to play not knowing when a landmine might end their play forever. Resilience is abandoning your homeland to cross an unforgiving ocean in a shoddy boat because that seems like a better option than staying put.

Compared to the refugee issue, of course, criticisms of soccer should be deemed unremarkable – if someone does not approve of a game then that’s their business. Every sport in Australia has the right to try to broaden its sphere of influence: co-existence is the only sensible approach. Yet that the lazy objections of Keane, Sheehan and so many others make it into print (thus becoming part of the authorised discourse) hints at a much wider malaise in our society.

The next major soccer event in Australia – the 2015 Asian Cup – will be an isolationist’s nightmare: among those competing are China, Iraq, Iran, North Korea and Palestine. That tournament will bring tangible evidence of the frightening, dangerous unknown to these shores. The naysayers in the media will already be sharpening their clichés in anticipation.

Yet what is certain is that soccer is not going anywhere, no matter how many local commentators rage against it. Similarly, in coming years there will only be more displaced persons seeking refuge from the conflicts and famines of an increasingly dysfunctional world. Is it too much to hope that the dialogue will one day rise above the level of simply wishing both soccer and asylum seekers would go away?

Dean Biron is an independent scholar who holds a PhD from the University of New England. He was co-winner of the 2011 Calibre Essay Prize.

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  1. More crashingly banal than the “gripes of Keane and Sheehan (being) dispiritingly banal” about something as mundane as sport is the bathos surrounding the howler of a refugee sufferer / soccer follower comparison being made here.

    • The connection between the misunderstanding of soccer here and asylum-seekers in an imaginative one which is clearly beyond the scope of your intelligence.

      • Yeah, well, if intelligence is understood as ‘linking up’, then guilty as charged: for me the otherness of refugees being ejected and rejected by the Australian Government no way equates with the otherness of soccer rejection, no matter how imaginative. I did grow up in an Australia surrounded by refugee families from Eastern Europe with professional qualifications (doctors, lawyers, classical musicians etc.) who were displaced by WW2 and forced to work in coalmines and who were vilified for what they ate and drank. As I understand it, soccer is the fastest growing sport in Australia. When accepting refugees becomes the fastest growing immigration intake in Australia, maybe then will I have the intelligence to understand the imaginative link being made in this piece?

  2. The imaginative connection in the above article between the soccer and asylum-seekers is not banal. Might be worthwhile to keep in mind that as a world game, soccer/football includes peoples from war-ravaged, developing countries, which no other sport does…

  3. A few years ago we organised young, local soccer players to play against young asylum seekers in detention in a northern suburb of Melbourne. It demonstrated the common language of the game and built a strong link between these young people. I did think the fact soccer was the “other” sport which was still not part of the mainstream gave our youngsters a stronger empathy.

    • Thanks for your comment, Chuck.

      As I note in the piece, this concept of “otherness” is obviously a far more serious issue when applied to refugees (or, indeed, certain other cultures and ethnicities generally).

      But, as you intimate, there are certainly connections to be made between soccer and contemporary asylum seekers, beginning with the fact that many of the latter identify with the former as part of their own “way of life”.

      More importantly, the persistence of language which implies that both are somehow an unwelcome intrusion into our cultural landscape – as opposed to a potentially positive addition – links the two in a more troubling way.

    • Great post Chuck! Making the connection between soccer as a form of communication and community for those asylum-seekers in detention clearly provided a temporary balm to their imprisonment. And yes you’re right in identifying a pattern of ‘othering’ that takes place in Oz with soccer and ‘boat people’…terrible phrase so dehumanising.

  4. Yes, and active participation in and slavish devotion to the AFL has really assisted the plight of Indigenous Australians living in city, town and remote regions of Australia.

    • Who play and are included in a manifold of sports, yet remain exiles in (refugees from) their own country.

  5. Yes good second point. You might want to re-read the article though…to my knowledge AFL is not a world game. More parochial isn’t it? I embrace anything that enables the full participation of people, including women, whether it’s sport or something else.

    • The point being it is asking too much of sport, particularly sports driven by micro- economic interests, to redress socio-political problems given the vested interests of those controlling games, particularly soccer (or football – the ‘beautiful game’ – should you prefer). Soccer is said to be a world game, like the Olympic Games, but are they really inclusive of all world cultures in a macro-economic sense? Take the recently completed, so-called World Cup in Brazil. The cup came and went and Brazilians went away disappointed, many back to favelas infested by state violence and torture far worse than before the spotlight of a World Cup, as with China after its Olympic Games. Being a world game isn’t all the gloss it’s cracked up to be by the press and other forms of media and the dominant ideological powers whose political spin prevails in this world of ours.

      • I largely agree when you argue that “it is asking too much of sport [...] to redress socio-political problems”, though sport can certainly be a positive force in many different ways. But then the article does not make such a claim in the first place.

  6. Your spiel deserves to be an article….why not contribute to the world of knowledge by publishing your rant? Responses like this easy. Developing a well argued and insightful article is difficult. So go for it Owl :)

  7. Oh apologies to all Owls out there! Owls are meant to be wise. I mistook ‘Own Goal’ for a wise owl—my mistake!!!

    • I’ll leave off here by agreeing with the opening sentence of the article in question:

      “If the maturity of a nation can be judged by the level of its public discourse, frequently Australia appears marooned in its early teenage years.”

  8. Yes I agree. Part of getting out of one’s teenage years –either on the scale of a nation or individual–is to contribute to public discourse in a meaningful way. This can be done by writing well argued articles like the one above. Using the comment section in which to address problems that have no relationship at all to the said article above is not getting out of one’s teenage years.

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